|Another December, another Phil Ochs birth anniversary. Wow, he would have been 69 this year. It’s also time for the stream of annual Ochs birthday concerts which have been occurring all over the nation each December since the singer’s untimely death in 1976. The movement has not had Phil Ochs to call upon for a long time, but none on the Left have forgotten his impact – and the impact his music continues to have upon us.|
From the view of contemporary times, it is perhaps Phil Ochs (1940-1976), among other ‘60’s folkies, which speaks most directly to us. His was a visceral kind of protest music. Ochs maintained an affiliation with the IWW throughout his adult life, though he was a self-described socialist who demonstrated an affinity toward anarchism; he detested the greed of capital and this poured out of his songs. Ochs was active in the fertile period that bridged the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War periods, with those of Women’s Liberation, Black Power, AIM, militant environmentalism and Gay rights. For an artist of conscience, there was much work to do, so Phil Ochs’ songs called for peace, equal rights and an egalitarian society. His songs damned the establishments that begat the murder of our progressive heroes and allowed organized labor to forget its true mission. He cried for our nation and praised its promise.
Ochs’ songs unashamedly revealed our faults but also offered the means to rectify them. Phil was a presence at demonstrations and other radical actions, not merely a voice on a record. He traveled to Hazzard, Kentucky during the bloody strikes in the earliest 60s, boldly performing for the pickets and in ear-shot of the threatening goon squads. Several songs document these struggles, including the hauntingly beautiful “No Christmas in Kentucky”. Shortly thereafter, Phil became entrenched in Civil Rights, traveling to many points on the Klan’s radar. His periods in the Deep South are chronicled in songs such as “Freedom Riders” and the brutally blunt “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and “Too Many Martyrs, the Ballad of Medgar Evers.” His awareness of the power of song was keen, brazen.
In March of 1963, Ochs wrote in Broadside magazine of the importance of protest songs in the changing times of the day. It is amazing to note just how relevant this statement remains. Ochs described the core value of topical song – issue-based music relevant to progressive activism of the time in which it is created. But he also clarified, quite profoundly for such a young man, that the media stood in direct contrast to this music and that the songwriter needed to scour the news reports in order to find his or her material. It was – and is – a worthy duty. In this sense, Ochs’ statement lifted from the well of time stands as universal:
“The Need For Topical Music”
From Greenwich Village coffee houses to the national stage, Ochs sang his protest loudly. While his first two albums set the standard for topical singers henceforth, both All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore offer stark moments of beauty. “One More Parade”, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and, later, “The War is Over” gave us anthems that would carry the peace movement. “The Power and the Glory” spoke of his pride in our nation’s mission and greatness—even as the FBI began an investigation of him that would span a decade and fill 410 pages. “Cops of the World” spit back into the faces of the reactionary government. Ochs was nobody’s fool.
The music kept coming and Phil Ochs stood as a profound voice for his generation. Over the next few years, we’d hear the haunting “Changes” and on “Crucifixion” he emoted about the loss of John Kennedy, but wasn’t he also singing about the loss of innocence, perhaps conscience itself? When Bob Dylan had moved into other realms, focusing his lyrical content on matters of the personal as opposed to the social, Ochs maintained his stand as a topical artist, even as he dug deep inside. He never failed to strive for a wider sound, however, and in 1967 he relocated to the west coast, seeking change and the potential for a new scope both artistically and as a means toward the healing of his long-term emotional turmoil. Upon arrival, his producer paired him with pianist-arranger Lincoln Mayorga, already a fixture in LA studios as a member of the busy studio aggregation loosely known as the Wrecking Crew. The opportunity to work with Ochs posed an interesting challenge:
Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea (2)
From this start, Mayorga’s work with Ochs would be continuous. His keyboard playing and rhythm section arrangement helped Ochs to realize his visions, and he began to compose on piano, thereby incorporating more complex harmonies into his music. Mayorga often played a multitude of variations behind the folksinger’s endless streams of verses for each song. But he also contributed ideas beyond the styles of European concert music. On “Miranda”, the sound became that of the 1920s and to solidify this, Mayorga brought in a stream of great Jazz musicians from that era including the legendary reeds player Mattie Matlock and drummer Nick Fatool. Fatool’s syncopated services were retained for the song the album would perhaps become best known for, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, which made wry commentary on the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese, which occurred in front of an apartment complex full of witnesses who refused to come to her rescue. Ochs used this vehicle to illustrate alienation in society and darkly mocked it by singing over ragtime piano, flailing tenor banjo and tap-dancing drum breaks. The song was a smash on college campuses across country, yet true fame eluded Ochs. This coupled with emotional turmoil wore him down over the next few years. As Mayorga explained, “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself. He was in a bad place.”
Phil Ochs had been a major part of the protest surrounding the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, performing his best topical material right in Lincoln Park. Later, he was called in as a witness for the defense on behalf of the Chicago 8, speaking sardonically of how he bought and paid for Pigasus, the pig he and the Yippies were nominating for president. But Ochs told anyone who’d listen that he felt he spiritually died in Chicago, as the police riot inflicted pain upon democracy itself. Working in concert with the Yippies’ vision of protest as a kind of theatre-of-the-absurd, Ochs was sure to help turn the defendants’ very trial into a spectacle. The following excerpts of the actual trial transcript, wherein Ochs is questioned by defense attorney William Kuntsler need no doctoring for they reflect the spirit of the times—and of the revolutionary acts they were involved in—quite clearly:
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, Mr. Ochs, can you indicate what kind of songs you sing?
Not only the authorities, but Ochs toyed with fans too. He also mocked his own sense of doom when he titled his 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement. Its cover depicted his own gravestone with the year of death listed as, of course, 1968. Continually plagued by demons, both inner and outer, Ochs struggled with bi-polar disorder, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Often, his performances became strained as lyrics were increasingly forgotten and melodies faded. In his later period, gigs became arguments with the audience. Ochs would see the end of the decade as a metaphor for the demise of the movement.
Ochs had become very pessimistic by 1970. The series of mishaps at his Carnegie Hall concert that year would eventually be released on record as Gunfight at Carnegie Hall due to Ochs’ verbal sparring with the audience as he tried desperately to play popular songs from his past, sporting a gold lame suit and singing songs by Elvis, Buddy Holly and others. “Phil thought that America had no future—any good would come from its past, so he celebrated this earlier time”, pianist Lincoln Mayorga offered.
He wore the Elvis suit, but it was more inspired by Liberace, who was so flamboyant in Vegas, but so popular. Phil was trying to find the answer. He even endorsed the music of Merle Haggard, the darling of the Right-wing at the time. He realized that Haggard had become a more effective voice for the Right than any so far on the Left, and he wanted to capture that. We played “Okie from Muskogee” and the audience just hated it. (4)
Mayorga’s primary memory of the event was the bomb scare that was called in half-way through the concert. Phil, who’d been drinking wine to wash down uppers all evening, was onstage for an acoustic segment, alternating with the full band’s sets, and a police officer informed Mayorga about the bomb threat. He ordered that Phil close up early and tell the audience to exit. Mayorga went onstage and sat at the piano to get Ochs’ attention:
Phil came over to tune his guitar and I leaned over and whispered in his ear, telling him about the seriousness of the situation. Phil slowly looked up at me, looking deep into my eyes and then put on his shit-eating grin. He slyly asked, ‘Are you prepared to die for rock-n-roll?’. And then he went and sang another song or two before coming off stage.
To the point of Ochs’ desperate need to reach back into the past—his own and that of the nation—we find his final album, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits of 1970. Not a ‘Best Of’ collection at all, but ten new songs, many of which indicate the genres of his youth. One can hear strains of Conway Twitty, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, even a Chevrolet commercial, all bracketed by the telling “One Way Ticket Home” and the very somber “No More Songs”. The album cover, of course featured Ochs in his Elvis suit and inside the liner notes jibe ‘50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong’, a self-deprecating take on the claim by Elvis’ record label that ‘50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong’ in that artist’s press. By contrast, Phil’s record sales were pitiful and his contract was quietly cancelled. Mayorga reports that the last time he saw Ochs was in 1973, when he was called to perform with him at the Troubadour, an unrehearsed gig which was not without problems. “But I never dreamt that it would be the last time I’d see Phil; I thought it would go on forever”, Mayorga recalled soberly.
As the Vietnam war slowly came to a bloody, grinding halt, Ochs staged several ‘The War is Over’ concerts which featured many name performers in both folk and rock music, the largest of which occurred in New York’s Central Park in 1975. He would also travel to Chile and befriend the great songwriter Victor Jara. Shortly thereafter, the CIA-backed coupe would take the lives of Jara and thousands of others; this was a terminal assault to the faltering Ochs. By 1976, unable to prevail in this battle on every front, Phil Ochs would die by his own hand.
The protest song’s grandest voice dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audiences to corruption and brutality and especially to the right-wing’s manipulation of ‘the American dream’. Ironically, he also warned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. And now, the silence has become deafening.
Noted folksinger Holly Near, who’d worked with Ochs on a number of occasions, recently spoke of her feelings about the star-crossed topical singer:
The world hurt him. Artists who do this work must figure out how to articulate the broken heart of humanity—but do so without hurting themselves, without losing themselves in the process. (5)
(1) Ochs, Phil, “The Need for Topical Music”, Broadside #22, March 1963; source: Cunningham, Sis, Red Dust and Broadsides: A piece of People’s History in Songs, poems and Prose, self-published, 1990, page 37.
(2) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09.
(3) excerpts, court transcript, Chicago, 1968.
(4) from the author’s interview with Lincoln Mayorga, Chatham New York, 6/19/09.
(5) from the author’s interview with Holly Near, 11/7/09.
---John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York City. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book ‘THE CULTURAL WORKERS: RADICAL ARTS AND REVOLUTIONARY ARTISTS IN THE USA, 1900-TODAY’ - www.flamesofdiscontent.org
Saturday, January 2, 2010
The necessary genius
Phil Ochs, Fondly Recalled, Is Never Really Lost